Labour’s tax raid on private schools could mean no more Billy Elliots

The Billy Elliot story could become impossible because of Labour’s plan to impose VAT on private schools, the head of the Royal Ballet School has warned.

David Gajadharsingh said the proposed 20 percent tax was likely to “destroy” opportunities for talented children from less affluent backgrounds and could ultimately damage ballet’s reputation in Britain.

In an interview with The Telegraph, he called on Sir Keir Starmer to reconsider the effects of the general election promise on both social mobility and the performing arts, and to exempt children receiving government support.

The institution currently hosts 225 elite ballet dancers between the ages of 11 and 19, who combine regular academic education with intensive artistic training for up to four hours a day.

Considered one of the best ballet training schools in the world, most graduates gain places with the Royal Ballet or other international companies.

Subsistence costs – set by the Department for Education (DfE) – range from around £30,000 to £35,000 per year and financial support in the form of government and private grants is strictly means-tested.

It means that while the majority of children receive some assistance (some are supported at 100 percent), most families have to contribute to a greater or lesser extent.

David Gajadharsingh

David Gajadharsingh said a Labor government could ultimately damage ballet’s reputation in Britain – JEFF GILBERT

When The Telegraph visited this week, Year 11 students were taking a break from intensive ballet training to sit their GCSE exams.

All around them, however, preparations for the start of the main season – including La Valse in Holland Park – were in full swing.

‘It would destroy opportunities’

Sitting in his office at the majestic White Lodge campus of the primary school, a Grade I Georgian hunting lodge in the heart of Richmond Park in south-west London, Mr Gajadharsingh, the academic and pastoral director, could not contain his frustration.

Like independent leaders across the country, he is eagerly awaiting the Labor manifesto, hoping to find out what impact the VAT policy will have on the children in his care.

However, in the absence of details, he can only fear the worst.

“It would destroy opportunities,” he said bluntly.

“I can think of specific young people who come from typical working-class families who have discovered a love of dance, especially ballet, who would never have had the opportunity to develop that interest and that love, and who are now professional dancers in companies across the whole world. world.

“It’s the story of Billy Elliot,” he added. “That’s exactly what it is.”

Released in 2000, the hugely popular film tells the story of a working-class boy from the North East of England with a passion for ballet, who battles the prejudices of his mining community to gain a life-changing place at the Royal Ballet School.

The families that send their children to school are, for the most part, not wealthy.

In fact, 40 percent of students have parents with a combined income of less than £50,000 a year, while 28 percent come from families earning less than £35,000.

Because the means test is so strict, even less affluent parents pay what they can.

A 20 percent tax hit could push many over the edge.

Risk of ‘rich kids’

“A significant number of our parents simply would not be able to tolerate a 20 percent increase in what they currently contribute,” Mr Gajadharsingh said.

The risk is that the school, which is perhaps the purest example of meritocracy possible, becomes an institution for the wealthy.

Or, as the director put it, a place “for rich kids who may not even be good dancers, but can afford to come to school.”

The unique infrastructure and staffing needs of an elite ballet school come with a huge cost base.

In addition to the normal academic staff, a 20-strong healthcare team – made up of physios, nutritionists, pilates instructors and others – works around the clock to keep the young athletes healthy.

At White Lodge primary school – the upper school is based in Covent Garden – they work in a lavishly equipped basement suite, full of Pilates machines costing £5,500 each, weights and other specialist fitness and rehabilitation equipment.

Erica Gethen Smith, a former professional dancer turned physiotherapist, explained that the team had recently lost two members, one of whom had gone to work for Chelsea FC, the other for Brighton and Hove Albion.

“I think that flattered us,” she said. “It certainly shows the level of athlete we are looking after here.”

Then there are the dance teachers.

Fine margins

In a large, mirror-lined studio, Larissa Bamber, a former ballerina from the Royal Ballet, led a group of 16 Year 9 girls through their exercises, while a professional pianist – the lessons require live piano, further driving up costs – played Morning by Edvard Grieg.

The music stops abruptly and Ms. Bamber, chanting “toes, toes, toes,” marches along the line of precariously positioned young ballerinas, meticulously correcting the angles of their outstretched feet.

The requirements to take ballet to the highest level are endless.

Costumes are regularly ordered from all over Europe.

Meanwhile, when specialist choreographers are called in to prepare the students for their public performances, the school foots the bill for their flights and accommodation.

It means fine financial margins.

“Depending on the impact of a possible increase in school fees and subsequent student departures, we may find ourselves in a position where the quality of performance outcomes at the school could be compromised,” Mr Gajadharsingh said.

“I am sure this is not a good prospect for any government, especially one of the country’s leading performing arts schools.”

Even for non-vocational independent schools, the difficulty of planning around a policy for which no details currently exist is a headache.

But for the Royal Ballet School it’s a real migraine.

‘Politics of envy’

Currently, 58 percent of students receive various levels of government sponsorship under the Music and Dance Programme, but it is not known whether these places will charge VAT, and if so, whether the DfE would reimburse it.

Then there is the uncertainty surrounding pupils with special needs: currently around 40 from the Royal Ballet School are on the special needs register.

“I believe that education should be something sacred and protected, and a matter of parental choice,” the director said.

‘I think there’s a misconception that every private school is Eton, Harrow or Winchester, but that’s not the case.

“My instinct says this is the politics of envy. They won’t care [Labour] the money they want or expect.”

In the lobby of White Lodge stands a life-size bronze statue of perhaps the school’s most famous alumnus, Margot Fonteyn.

Mr. Gajadharsingh points with the middle finger of her outstretched hand, which is shinier than the rest of the image.

“It’s a tradition we have here,” he said. “The students touch their finger along the way for good luck.”

As he awaits the details of Labour’s flagship policy, he may well be tempted to weigh in on it himself.

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